Llamas could hold key to major breakthroughs in cancer and disease

10 Jul 2018

Image: fotobook/Shutterstock

The humble, furry llama of South America has been hiding a powerful secret within its microbiology that could play an instrumental part in the fight against cancer.

A common sight on the steep, rocky mountains of the Andes, the llama is a creature famous around the world for its coat of fur, and also its fondness of spitting at humans who might get too close.

Now, new research into the underlying microbiology of the animal has found something astounding that could have a significant and beneficial effect on human medicine.

In a paper published to Nature Communications, a team of researchers from Case Western Reserve University in the US identified a nanobody derived from a llama that targets signalling of G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs), a large family of receptors involved with transmitting signals in cells.

The llama nanobody has been found to target a biological component known as G beta-gamma, which binds and efficiently activates several other signalling proteins.

Once activated, these proteins are known to be linked to several types of cancer, neurological disorders and drug addiction, potentially turning the nanobody into a major new weapon in the development of targeted therapies.

A potential silver bullet

Further research has shown that the nanobody binds G beta-gamma tightly, shutting off the damaging switch that signals the proteins, with no visible effect in essential GPCR signalling events in a healthy body.

This is big news as current therapeutic approaches that target GCPRs using small drug molecules are too broad, causing unwanted side effects.

Additionally, most small drug molecule and antibody treatments are made specifically for targeting GPCR but because there are almost 1,000 GPCRs in humans, you’d need 1,000 drug development pipelines to target every one of them.

Roughly 20pc of US Food and Drug Administration-approved medications target GPCRs, including medications for asthma, pain, osteoporosis and high blood pressure.

The team took an unconventional approach to GPCR signalling, having targeted G proteins and not GPCRs themselves. This, the team said, could provide control on several GPCRs and might also avoid undesired cellular events.

“This approach might potentially be a silver bullet for treating several medical conditions with GPCRs as key targets,” said Sahil Gulati, who was involved in the research.

“The study serves as the first example where a nanobody has been shown to alter GPCR signalling at the G protein level by inhibiting G beta-gamma signalling. This will enhance the potential of nanobodies to treat various neurological conditions and cancer progression.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic